CHINESE PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER: CONFUCIANISM, ASIAN VALUES AND COMMUNISM

CHINESE PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER

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Citizens poster from the 1920s
Chinese have described themselves as harsh, tenacious, unpredictable, materialistic, greedy, secretive, direct, suspicious, stoic, warm, xenophobic, respectful and insensitive. They can be very hard working but also have a reputation for corruption and arbitrariness. Among the traits that Chinese consumers said they admired most in a marketing study were diligence, self-confidence, respect, talent, heroism and light-heartedness.

Cong Zhong, a professor and psychoanalyst at Beijing Medical College, told the Times of London, “Deep down, Chinese people have the same repressed feelings, desires and problems" as Westerners. The five traditional blessings are prosperity, happiness, passion, health and good luck. Patience and diligence and family are also highly valued.

Traditional Chinese values include love and respect for the family, integrity, loyalty, honesty, humility, industriousness, respect for elders, patience, persistence, hard work, friendship, commitment to education, belief in order and stability, emphasis on obligations to the community rather just individual rights and preference for consultation rather then open confrontation. These values are generally shared by other Asians and are drilled into children from nursery school onward.

Geoffrey Blowers, a professor of psychology at Hong Kong University, told the Times of London, “In Judaeo-Christian culture, with its belief in a personal connection with God, there is a tradition of improvement through self-examination. In the Chinese cosmological system the emphasis is on continuity, and the need to fit in with one’s surroundings.” He adds that in Western “guilt culture” people are more used to bearing their souls while in Asian ‘shame culture” people are taught to be more discreet lest they bring shame to their families.

Some Non-Chinese find the Chinese crude and pushy yet humble and shy. The writer Paul Theroux wrote the Chinese he encountered "were very tidy in the way they dress and packed their things, but they were energetic litterers and they were hellish in toilets...They spat, they shouted, they stared and undressed in public; and yet with all this they seldom quarreled. They were extremely shy---timid even---modest and naive."

Research by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has made the following points: 1) Elder Chinese people have better sense of responsibility than youngsters. 2) Younger male Chinese are more practical or realistic (actual) than younger female Chinese. 3) Youngsters are more tactful or sophisticated than elder people. 4) Hong Kong people are more practical or realistic than mainland Chinese. 5) Mainland Chinese value face more than Hong Kong Chinese people. 6) As for "Family Indifference", 26 - 35 aged Chinese score best. 7) Hong Kong elders show more tendency to be self-centered. 8) Tolerance of mainland Chinese elders increase, Hong Kong elders decrease. 9) Guangzhou people are more pro-active, energetic, positive than Xian people. 10) better living standards has produced the more open-minded and tolerant Chinese. 12) U.S. people are generally more open, straight-forward and optimistic that Chinese. 13) According to US standard, many Chinese have a sort of "a tendency to suffer from depression". 14) Chinese interpersonal relationship usually follows some "hidden rules" — Chinese people look for harmonious, relationships but often they have their own ambitions and interests.

Da Ji Yuan wrote in the Epoch Times: 1) Chinese prefer cautious, experienced and prudent behavior, sentiments being expressed in a reserved way and well-disciplined types of people. 2) Chinese spend much effort at interpersonal relationship — trying to understand or/and guess others. 3) Tolerance and patience are Chinese' skills for living and survival in hard and unfair environment. 4) Foreigners think Chinese are phony. It's true Chinese are inconsistent with what they say and what they think, often protecting themselves from making troubles. 5) China emphasizes "fewer mistakes" education, hence, students better follow orders, and are more disciplined. 6) Chinese usually don't criticize existed system, resulting in a kind of inertia or conservative view. [Source: Da Ji Yuan, Epoch Times, June 4, 2001]

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Personality book on PDF file ihome.ust.hk Book: Understanding the Chinese Personality mellenpress.com ; Chinese Personality and Work personality.cn ; Negotiating and Building Relationships with Chinese by Sidney Rittenberg cic.sfu.ca ; Understanding Chinese Business Culture legacee.com ; Status of Chinese People Blog chinaview.wordpress.com ; Chinese Human Genome Diversity Project www.pnas.org ; Difference Between Chinese and Japanese, a Blog Report socyberty.com ; Opinions on Asian Fetish colorq.org ; Wikipedia article on the Mongoloid Race Wikipedia ; Chinese Personality Constructs highwire.org ; Old Chinese jokes China Vista ; Essay on Humor, China and Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org . Book: One of the most enlightening books about China is Chinese Lives by Sang Ye and Zhang Xinxin, a series of interviews with ordinary Chinese talking very candidly about what matter to them.

Links in this Website: CHINESE PEOPLE Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE PEOPLE AND DNA Factsanddetails.com/China ;CHINESE PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE PERSONALITY TRAITS AND CHARACTERISTICS Factsanddetails.com/China ; REGIONAL DIFFERENCES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE CUSTOMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; BAD MANNERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE SOCIETY, CONFUCIANISM, CROWDS AND VILLAGES Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE SOCIETY AND COMMUNISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; CLASSIC CHINESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/China ; MODERN CHINESE LITERATURE Factsanddetails.com/China ; MODERN CHINESE WRITERS Factsanddetails.com/China ; RELIGION, FOLK BELIEFS AND DEATH ( Main Page, Click Religion) Factsanddetails.com/China JAPANESE PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE SOCIETY Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Problems of Defining Chinese Character

There does seems to be some character differences between Asians and Westerners but defining these differences and interpreting their significance is difficult and even dangerous. It has been said for example that Asian societies place more emphasis on intuitive insight and tradition than Western societies which are based more on logic. But defining exactly what tradition, intuitive insight and logic are is difficult, especially if you factor in cultural relativity,

It is hard to pin down what is Chinese, National Public radio correspondent Rob Giffrid wrote, “For every fact that is true...the opposite is almost always true as well, somewhere in the country.” The view that Westerners have of China and Chinese is often based on stereotypes and journalistic myths. Only recently has the West begun to understand how complex and diverse China and the Chinese are.

Advertisers have difficulty developing national marketing schemes in China because income levels, education levels and other demographics vary so much from place to place. One advertising researcher, for example, found though focus group studies that young people in Guangzhou are much more “pragmatic cool,” wanting their cell phones to have MP3 players, than their counterparts in Shanghai who wanted an Ipod and a separate, trendy, cell phone. [Source: International Herald Tribune]

“Chinese Characteristics” from an Orientalist View in 1894

“Chinese Characteristics” is a book by American missionary Arthur H. Smith written in 1894. Some of its chapters are: 1) Face-valued; 2) Economy; 3) Industry; 4) Politeness; 5) The Disregard of Time; 6) The Disregard of Accuracy; 7) The Talent for Misunderstanding; 8) The Talent for Indirection; 9) Flexible Inflexibility; 10) Intellectual Turbidity; 11) The Absence of Nerves; 12) Contempt for Foreigners; 13) The Absence of Public Spirit; 14) Conservation; 15) Indifference to Comfort and Convenience; 16) Physical Vitality; 17) Patience and Perseverance; 18) Content and Cheerfulness; 19) Filial Piety; 20) Benevolence; 21) The Absence of Sympathy; 22) Social Typhoons; 23) Mutual Responsibility and Respect for Law; 24) Mutual Suspicion; 25) The Absence of Sincerity; 26) Polytheism, Pantheism, Atheism; 27) The Real Condition of China and her Present Needs.

John Pomfret wrote in the Washington Post, “Chinese Characteristics” “was the most widely read book on China well into the 1920s. “Chinese Characteristics” is riddled with the patronizing racism of the time, but it’s also deeply insightful. Smith’s description of the Chinese concept of “face” inspired China’s best-known writer, Lu Xun, to compose his most famous short story, “The True Story of Ah Q.” [Source: John Pomfret, Washington Post, May 16, 2014. John Pomfret, the author of “Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China” /*\]

In a review of “Chinese Characteristics,” Anatoly Karlin wrote in his blog: “In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is a historical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country. [Source: Anatoly Karlin, March 28, 2013. Karlin is a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the San Francisco area. He is originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley ~|~]

“The “Chinese character” that emerges from his account forms a stark contradistinction to what we might call the “Smithian character,” a category that embraces not only the eponymous author but also reflects the values and assumptions of your archetypical fin de siècle American WASP male. The Chinese character goes by nature’s cycles, and does not have a good sense of either punctuality or even his own age; the Westerner, on the other hand, marches to the chimes of the clock. This “disregard of time” is matched by a “disregard for accuracy” – it is mentioned that the real distance of the Chinese li varies depending on terrain, the prevailing weather. Likewise, the real value of the national currency varies from province to province. ~|~

“Another major element covered by Smith in relation to China is “intellectual turbidity.” This might seem strange, considering that he also talks of how “all the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded”, but one which becomes much more comprehensible after noting that Smith also says that “education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle”. These observations are confirmed by the historical fact that primary enrollment was at just 4 percent of the eligible school-age population in China in 1900. (This characteristic, incidentally, seems to be alive well to this day, as evidenced by the immense stress that revolves around the gaokao). Nonetheless, the common folks come off as pretty stupid, and unable to grasp the essence of the questions put to them. For instance, in reply to a query about his age, one man’s answer is said to resemble a “rusty old smoothbore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage.” Although isn’t asking such a question awkward in the first place? That said, at least we can’t fault Smith for not knowing how to throw in a good turn of phrase! ~|~

“Another major part of the book concerns Chinese attitudes as regards kin, family, society, and nation. Filial piety is extremely developed; in fact, it is over-developed, to the extent that there have been cases of children willing to sacrifice themselves so as to avoid the death penalty for their criminal parents. (Not exactly a civilization with much in the way of individual responsibility). A less extreme but far more widespread effect of this is the devaluation of the worth of women. While Smith is undoubtedly a man of patriarchal views, he subscribes to the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes, and supports women’s education. These aims are harder to achieve in a society built around ancestor worship, where the prerogative to maintain the “continuum of descent” is overriding. Social sanctions, such as the ones for harboring criminals or traitors, are collective in nature, and go against the idea of personal responsibility. But it’s not all bad, at least as regards violence: “Human life is safer in a Chinese city than in an American city.” ~|~

“Nor are the Chinese dying out like the French: ‘Contrast the apparent growth of the Chinese at any point, with the condition of the population in France, where the rate of increase is the lowest in all Europe, and where the latest returns show an absolute decrease in the number of inhabitants. Such facts have excited the gravest fears as to the future of that great country. The Chinese, on the other hand, show no more signs of race decay than the Anglo-Saxons.’ ~|~

Although there is a widespread “hatred of foreigners,” – but isn’t that quite understandable, given the circumstances of late Qing China – it does not translate into a sense of national cohesion or patriotism. In practice, it is the family (jia) which come first, and then the clans around which Chinese villages are built. (This appears to be accurate). Concubinage and soft polygamy are rife. Honesty is absent in general, though not always at the individual level. The bureaucracy is stiff, rigid, and all too frequently, corrupt. In modern parlance, we would call this a lack of “social capital.” While Smith acknowledges that Confucianism is a praiseworthy ethical system, the problem is that it is an elite ideology and does not percolate down to the masses. What China desperately needs is “righteousness,” and this can be attained “permanently, completely, only by Christian civilization.” ~|~

“The influence of China’s historical backwardness is also clearly manifest as regards the lack of hygiene, the threadbare poverty, the “disregard of accuracy”. Likewise, while he notes the province by province discrepancies in weights, distances, coinages, and dialects, he largely forgoes to mention that this is all in the context of a weak state that is slowly falling apart – in no small part thanks to Western intrusions. Considering the large stock of Chinese mechanical inventions during the European middle ages and China’s long pedigree as a centralized bureaucratic state, it is strange to consider that such differences could be a specifically “Chinese” characteristic. It is worth nothing that even France, despite the prior legacy of Colbert’s dirigisme, only unified its national market in the late 18th century, while linguistic unification would take an additional half a century.” ~|~

Religion, Confucianism and Character

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Filial piety
Confucianism puts a strong emphasis and following teachers, superiors, family members and elders. Liu Heung-shin, the editor of a Hong Kong magazine, wrote Chinese identity is "connected to Confucianism, built around families and connections. It's something Chinese people can feel, even if the don't describe it in words."

Love and respect are principals that were practiced more in the context of the family than in society and humanity as a whole and equality was not necessarily the goal of a just society. These ideas help explain why nepotism is so rampant, why Chinese are so horrified by the way Westerners treat the elderly and why the Chinese are more likely to mind their own business if they witness a great injustice being inflicted on a stranger.

Confucian values were displaced somewhat by Communism and Maoism. Since Mao's death and the launching of the Deng economic reforms, Confucianism has made a comeback only to be displaced somewhat by materialism, money and superficial success.

Confucian and Taoism basically contradict and are in conflict with one another. Confucianism, emphasizes achievement and propriety while Taoism stresses unseen strengths in being humble and in some cases, being perceived as average.

Asians often do not seem as self absorbed as Americans. One explanation may be religion. Buddhists talk about diminishing the self and looking to other for guidance and information

Basic Tenets of Confucianism

Confucianism stresses the importance of precedent and universal truths articulated by sages of the past and emphasizes self improvement. The two major doctrines of Confucianism are: 1) zhong, based on the Chinese character that combines "heart” and "middle," meaning fidelity to oneself and humanity within; and 2) shu, meaning cherish the heart as if it were one’s owner.

Confucianism is a social code based on morality rather than laws. Confucius said: “If you govern by regulations and keep them in order by punishment, the people will avoid trouble but have no sense of shame. If you govern them by moral influence, and keep them in order by a code of manners, they will have a sense of shame and will come to you of their own accord.”

Confucius believed people should look to the past to gain insight into how to behave and said virtuous men should follow the examples of the great ancestors. The Analects outlined the four basic concepts of Confucian thought: 1) benevolence, love of humanity and the virtues of the superior man (jen); 2) moderation in all things (chung yung) and harmony with nature (T'ien): 3) filial propriety, duty and the rules that define good social relationships (li); 4) the "rectification of names" or recognizing the nature of things by giving them their right names (cheng ming).

Unlike Taoism, which emphasizes the natural way, Confucianism emphasizes the social way. It assumes that the natural world---i.e the seasons, day and night and the agriculture cycle---follow the same code as mankind; that all events on earth are the due to the “decree of heaven”; and the natural course of events, whether they be related to society or nature, is a reflection of the “Way of Heaven.”

Five Virtues

right Confucianism recognizes five cardinal virtues: 1) benevolence in terms of sympathy for others (jen); 2) duty reflected in the shame felt after doing something wrong (yi); 3) manners, propriety and feelings of deference (li); 4) wisdom, in terms of discerning right and wrong (chih;) and 5) loyalty and good faith (hsin).

Benevolence is regarded as the most important of the virtues, and some effort is made to define it, with the Golden Rule being only one attempt. Manners are also given a lot of attention and means both the outward actions and inner feelings of respect. The concept embraces not only etiquette but also customs, rituals and conventions of all kinds.

Early Confucian focused a lot of attention on the relationship between morality and human nature and the whole idea that they are dovetailing and conflicting forces. Almost every side and view was taken on the subject. One prevailing idea was that human nature was a mixture of good and bad and the amounts of each could vary a great deal from individual to individual. Another important concept was that human nature was something that was evil Yet another view was that human nature was something that was in tune with the forces of heaven.

In the end the view expressed in The Book of Rites—“That in man which is decreed by heaven is what is meant by “nature”; to follow his nature is meant by the “Way”; cultivation of the Way is what is meant by education”---became the prevailing view.

One Chinese chatline user said, China “is an unusual society. Many Chinese like to shift responsibility and duty to others. If that person succeeds, he is revered. If the opposite happens, he will be condemned.”

Confucian Beliefs About Social Relationships

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Confucius

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Confucians stress that a person’s worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top; peasant farmers in the middle; and artisans and merchants at the bottom. Confucian scholars grew their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian leadership, crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Jackie Chan raised some eyebrows in April 2009 when he said that “Chinese need to be controlled. Before an audience of business leaders on Hainan Island in China he said, “I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not. I’m really confused now. If you’ve got too much freedom you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic...I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”

Confucianism and Families

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules, and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the concept that it was important to worship one's parents while they are still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom. This sentiment is best expressed during the "elders first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them.

Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents respond. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age."

Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In The Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too.”

One Chinese woman who worked in marketing told The New Yorker, “In both the U.S. and China, people say that the family is the No. 1 priority. But in the U.S. they really mean it. In China, everything is about career and getting ahead.”

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Another filiel piety scene

Asian Character

It can be argued that Asians are more honest than Americans. In many instances Asians are more likely to admit a crime if they have committed it. The adversarial Western model of jurisprudence is alien to some Asians.

It can also be argued that Asians are less likely to express anger or strong emotions in public. Buddhism encourages its practitioners to keep their emotions and passions in check. Controlling and not expressing emotions is viewed as a sign of strength.

The same discipline is applied to social situations. An executive with the Chinese computer firm Lenovo told U.S. News and World Report, “Westerners tend to speak first, then listen, and easterners tend to listen, then speak.”

Asian seem to be wore willing to share their personal space with others. There is little privacy in Asia. People live close together and are used to having people around them all the time. Wanting to be by oneself is considered kind of strange.

Psychologists such as Richard Nisbett, at the University of Michigan, have measured ways in which Westerners tend to see the world in terms of discrete objects, while people from mainland China and Taiwan tend to focus on relationships. A typical experiment: when Americans are asked to group together two out of three things---a cow, a chicken, and a patch of grass---they are more likely to say that the cow and the chicken belong together, because they are both animals, but Asians tend to put the cow and the grass together, because the cow eats the grass. In practice, Saporta said, a Chinese patient might express a desire more indirectly than a Westerner, out of a concern for how that desire might disrupt relationships: "In psychoanalysis, you would see this person as conflicted about what they want, and you'd try to get them to be freer and more direct." He added, "It's not clear to me how important these differences are for therapy. Some people think they're important and some don't. But I think they should at least be considered." [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, January 10, 2011]

Asian Values

In the late 1990s it was fashionable to explain Asia’s economic success and prosperity in terms of “Asian values,” a collection of attributes such as a belief in hard work, thriftiness, propensity to save, filial piety, national pride, respect for order and authority, coherence of a society, and a commitments to common ideals, goals and values that place the common good ahead of the individual. Questioning authority and seniors was regarded as disrespectful, un-Confucian and un-Asian.

Some Asian value advocates went further and argued that Asian values created a better society. High rates of crime, unemployment, divorce, drug use and welfare dependency in Western societies were explained in part, the advocates said, by the fact that Westerners were lazy, selfish and greedy; and they sent their elderly to nursing homes and married several times. Asians by contrast did not have so many problems because they cared for their grandparents, shunned divorce, worked hard, saved their money and were devoted to their families.

Some Asian values advocates argued that the group-oriented, Confucian "Asian Way, " with its emphasis on respect for authority was better than the democratic, Judeo-Christian, individualistic "American Way." They suggested that imposing Western notions of individualism on Asia corrupted Asian society and Asian-style authoritarianism was the best way to develop economic growth.

Many of the pro-Asian-value pronouncements came out in the mid 1990s and were made with a degree of haughtiness. All one had to do was look around Asia, the advocates said, and see all the economic success to realize that the Asian model was better. One proponent of Asian values said, ''We're doing pretty well for ourselves, and we don't need America to play “father knows best anymore."

Xu Jilin---a noted scholar of Chinese intellectual history who teaches at East China Normal University in Shanghai---in his paper Universal Civilization, or Chinese Values: On the Past Ten Years of the Trend of Chinese Historicism (2010) Xu draws an analogy between the historicism of German intellectuals in the late 19th century and the current intellectual trend in China arguing for a Chinese value system that is fundamentally different to that in the West. At the end of a speech, Xu gave a dire warning about the dangers of this trend of thinking which ascribes a distinct value system to a people or culture arising from their own specific history. In the conclusion of the paper, he simply writes: "Universal civilization or Chinese values” Maybe this is a false dichotomy. The correct answer is: embrace universal civilization and rebuild Chinese values". [Source: Andrew Field]

Materialism and the Pursuit of Money in China

Ch'ng Poh Tiong, wine columnist and publisher of The Wine Review, told Reuters:"Chinese people are very aspirational and materialistic so once they have bought the best local brand then they start looking for something even better and more expensive.” [Source: Farah Master, Reuters, January 3, 2011]

Mark Kitto wrote in Prospect Magazine, “Modern day mainland Chinese society is focused on one object: money and the acquisition thereof. The politically correct term in China is “economic benefit.” The country and its people, on average, are far wealthier than they were 25 years ago. Traditional family culture, thanks to 60 years of self-serving socialism followed by another 30 of the “one child policy,” has become a “me” culture. Except where there is economic benefit to be had, communities do not act together, and when they do it is only to ensure equal financial compensation for the pollution, or the government-sponsored illegal land grab, or the poisoned children. Social status, so important in Chinese culture and more so thanks to those 60 years of communism, is defined by the display of wealth. Cars, apartments, personal jewellery, clothing, pets: all must be new and shiny, and carry a famous foreign brand name. In the small rural village where we live I am not asked about my health or that of my family, I am asked how much money our small business is making, how much our car cost, our dog. [Source: Mark Kitto, Prospect Magazine, August 8, 2012]

The trouble with money of course, and showing off how much you have, is that you upset the people who have very little. Hence the Party’s campaign to promote a “harmonious society,” its vast spending on urban and rural beautification projects, and reliance on the sale of “land rights” more than personal taxes. Once you’ve purchased the necessary baubles, you’ll want to invest the rest somewhere safe, preferably with a decent return---all the more important because one day you will have to pay your own medical bills and pension, besides overseas school and college fees. But there is nowhere to put it except into property or under the mattress. The stock markets are rigged, the banks operate in a way that is non-commercial, and the yuan is still strictly non-convertible. While the privileged, powerful and well-connected transfer their wealth overseas via legally questionable channels, the remainder can only buy yet more apartments or thicker mattresses. The result is the biggest property bubble in history, which when it pops will sound like a thousand firework accidents. [Ibid]

In brief, Chinese property prices have rocketed; owning a home has become unaffordable for the young urban workers; and vast residential developments continue to be built across the country whose units are primarily sold as investments, not homes. If you own a property you are more than likely to own at least three. Many of our friends do. If you don’t own a property, you are stuck. [Ibid]

When the bubble pops, or in the remote chance that it deflates gradually, the wealth the Party gave the people will deflate too. The promise will have been broken. And there’ll still be the medical bills, pensions and school fees. The people will want their money back, or a say in their future, which amounts to a political voice. If they are denied, they will cease to be harmonious. [Ibid]

Meanwhile, what of the ethnic minorities and the factory workers, the people on whom it is more convenient for the government to dispense overwhelming force rather than largesse? If an outburst of ethnic or labour discontent coincides with the collapse of the property market, and you throw in a scandal like the melamine tainted milk of 2008, or a fatal train crash that shows up massive, high level corruption, as in Wenzhou in 2011, and suddenly the harmonious society is likely to become a chorus of discontent. [Ibid]

Communism and Character in China

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Communism puts a strong emphasis on following authority without questioning it and, initially in China anyway, created a society in which people were equal by poor.

Years of totalitarianism have resulted in a fear of saying what one truly believes. One dissident writer told the New York Times, "The frightening thing about China is that almost every one says one thing in private and the opposite in public, because of the psychological damage, it corrupts society. If offends human dignity." One villager told the reporter Richard Critchfield, "What I hate most is lying. And the Communists were always lying."

“Value-imprinting”--a sort of moral brainwashing--is something that has existed since the time of Confucius and remains very much alive under the Communist Party. Going hand and hand with this, today anyway, is the practice of paying lip service to these values and being guided by a secretive, often more greedy, agenda.

Communism took Confucian paternalism to another level. A character in a Ha Jun novel says,”I spit at China, because it treats its citizens like gullible children and always prevents them form growing up into real individuals. It demands nothing but obedience.” See Human Rights

Years of living under Communism have made older people conservative. Young people are more open and willing to express their ideas.

See Society

Village Life and Character in China

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Villagers all over the world---whether they live in Africa, Poland, Guatemala, or China---often live remarkably similar lifestyles. Often the main thing that separates them is their religious beliefs and aspects of their life determined by the climate and landscape they live in.

Speculating on the illiterate village mind, journalist Alan Berlow wrote: "stories, intrigue, lies, gossip, speculation, gathered like rice in a basket, are tossed up in the air, sending husks to the wind, leaving behind kernels of truth. Truth and half truths, anyway." It is a "missing link, a smoking gun, the connective tissue of random events, the effort to explain things that resist explanation.

Villagers help one another in various ways. They help each other harvest their crops and build their homes. If someone has a serious health problem often everyone pitches in at least some money to help pay the medical bills. They also lend a hand taking care of widows and orphans, fighting fires and helping fix farm equipment.

Village life is often strictly codified. Since everyone knows and gossips about each other, morals tend to be similar. People who stand out or assert themselves as individuals are often regarded with suspicion and hostility by other villagers. People that are different are made fun.

Villagers are often very resourceful and very patient and make the most of available opportunities because they have little choice but to be resourceful and patient and seize the opportunities they may have. When bad things happen they often accept them as manifestations of God's will or the doings of some evil or naughty spirit.

Xenophobia and Nationalism in China

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Chinese actor playing a Westerner
The Chinese are often described as xenophobic and nationalistic. While they can be very sensitive and defensive about matters concerning China and Chinese customs, they are often not shy about insulting non-Chinese. One Chinese proverb states: "We can fool any foreigner."

Frank Hawke, a resident of Beijing since the 1970s, told the New York Times, “A psychological theme that runs throughout China” is that the “Chinese feel they have this great culture, second to none, and yet here they are, a third world developing country. Since 1949, their major goal has been to catch up and surpass the rest of the world in all aspects: culture, national defense, technology, sports. When they feel they’ve made a huge leap forward, there’s an incredible national pride.”

A person of Chinese descents who has lived outside China his entire life, but speaks no Chinese, is not labeled a foreigner. After Hong Kong becomes part of China, Chinese citizenship was only offered to people of "Chinese descent." People of Indian descent and mixed racial heritage were denied a Chinese passport because they were not "pure blood" Chinese.

Hurts the Feelings of the Chinese People

Victor Mair wrote in the Language Log, ‘spokespersons for the government of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) often complain that the words or actions of individuals or groups from other nations "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people". This is true even when those individuals or groups are speaking or acting on behalf of some segment of the Chinese population (e.g., political prisoners, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Falun Gong adherents, people whose houses have been forcibly demolished, farmers, and so forth). A typical cause for invoking the "hurt(s) the feelings of the Chinese people" circumlocution would be for the head of state of a country to meet with the Dalai Lama or Rebiya Kadeer. A good example is Mexican President Calderon's recent meeting with the Dalai Lama, which the PRC government denounced in extremely harsh terms. The vitriolic rebuke led one commentator to refer to the PRC denunciation of the Mexican President as a kind of "bullying". [Source: Victor Mair, Language Log September 12, 2011]

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I should note that the "hurt feelings" meme usually occurs in tandem with other standard kvetching: “grossly interfered with China’s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, and harmed Chinese-XYZ relations.” Clearly, this is formulaic language. What is more, because it is used with such frequency in China's dealing with other nations, it quickly begins to lose force and meaning, but amounts to mere blather and cannot be taken all that seriously. Still, its sheer ubiquity makes one wonder: why this obsession with damaged sensitivity?

Finding this expression “"hurts the feelings of the Chinese people" ‘so omnipresent in statements emanating from the PRC government, I wondered how it compares with the usage of analogous statements by representatives of other nations.

Here are ghits (Google hits) for some comparable phrases involving other nations: 1) “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people” 17,000; 2) “hurts the feelings of the Japanese people” 178; 3) “hurts the feelings of the American people” 5; 4) “hurts the feelings of the German people” 2; 5) “hurts the feelings of the Jewish people” 2; 6) “hurts the feelings of the Indian people” 0; 7) “hurts the feelings of the Russian people” 0; 8) “hurts the feelings of the Italian people” 0; 9) “hurts the feelings of the British people” 0; 10) “hurts the feelings of the Swedish people” 0; 11) “hurts the feelings of the French people” 0; 12) “hurts the feelings of the Spanish people” 0; 13) “hurts the feelings of the Turkish people” 0; 14) “hurts the feelings of the Greek people” 0; 15) “hurts the feelings of the Israeli people” 0; 16) “hurts the feelings of the Vietnamese people” 0; 17) “hurts the feelings of the Thai people” 0; 18) “hurts the feelings of the Egyptian people” 0: 19) “hurts the feelings of the Tibetan people” 0; 18) “hurts the feelings of the Uighur people” 0; 19) “hurts the feelings of the Uyghur people” 0; 20) “hurts the feelings of the Mongolian people” 0

Of course, "hurts the feelings of the XYZ people" is only one possible variation on this theme, and the same idea might also be expressed through other phraseology: "feelings were hurt," "feelings have been hurt," and the like. But "hurts the feelings of the Chinese people" seems to be the canonical form according to the word wizards of the PRC Foreign Ministry, so it probably gives a fair indication of the sort of diplomatic sentiment about the presumed collective PRC psyche effusing from Beijing.

Just before making this post, I came upon a 2008 article by Tom Lasseter entitled "The hurt feelings of the Chinese" so I am by no means the first person to notice this peculiar phenomenon. Then I started to look around a bit more, and I discovered a number of very interesting analyses of the wounded Chinese soul, including this excellent essay by Joel Martinsen: "Mapping the hurt feelings of the Chinese people in Danwei, also from 2008. Even the PRC's own Global Times weighed in on China's hurt feelings in 2009.

If you put hurt feelings China (no quotes) in your search engine, you will find all the countless thousands of people who have supposedly harmed the corporate Chinese spirit. Some, such as Bob Dylan, are warned NOT to hurt Chinese feelings before they have actually done so: "Bob Dylan Ordered to Not Hurt Feelings in China "!

What do we make of this hugely disproportionate usage of the "hurt feelings" meme by PRC spokespersons vis-à-vis its (non)usage by the spokespersons of other nations? Do Chinese have far more feelings than other people? Are Chinese more pathetic? More bathetic? More pitiable? Having studied Chinese language, literature, and culture for most of my life, I find it hard to comprehend why the PRC spokespersons should concentrate so much on the perceived wounded feelings of their countrymen. Surely it is self-demeaning for a large nation with such a long and illustrious past to focus so heavily on its injured emotions, yet there must be some reason(s) why they do so ad nauseam.

Individualism, Hedonism and Western Values in China

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“Individualism” is a trait that is looked upon with scorn by Communist government. Showing off and promoting oneself is not widely accepted. Too much pride has traditionally been thought to attract misfortune. A Chinese skateboarder told the Los Angeles Times, “The Chinese are still traditional, and many young kids have no ambition to show themselves off.”

On woman who spent 28 years in a labor camp breaking rocks told travel writer Colin Thubron, "In China, you must conform but I can't. That's why they think I'm mad. I challenge everything, you see, and that's the madness here. I ask Why? Why?...Why is not a Chinese question."

In 2002, John Pomfret of the Washington Post wrote: “Communism as an ideology is dead. It has been replaced by hedonism...Nationalism may appeal to a few hot-headed students but it can’t compare to a night on the town with a hot hostess in a Karaoke bar...China’s energy is focused on production and consumption---not self-reflection. This country is all id and no superego. It citizens hunger for sex, food, money, goods and cheap thrills.”

Some young Chinese while away the hours drinking potent moonshine, messing around with prostitutes and indulging themselves in pot-stewed pigs ears. Youths with school bags can often seen drinking beer at restaurants or smoking while they walk to and from school. According to one survey, 30 percent of Shanghai's middle school students drink and smoke. In another survey, most college students said their goal in life was to "to make money." Parents blame the current attitude on the negative influence of movies and advertising.

The youth of China today are widely seen as sort of lost generation with nothing to believe in but money, the writer Paul Theroux wrote, "no dogma, no Mao, no gods, no emperor, no Taoism, no Buddhism...with democracy such a long shot that most students didn't bother to participate in demonstrations." A Chinese professor, who lectured his students about international relations after visiting America, was disappointed with his students who, when the lecture was over, asked him questions like what brand of cigarettes Americans smoked.

See Culture, Media, American Television shows

Changing Codes of Behavior in China

Photographer Michael Yamashita wrote in National Geographic: Along with the changes that define new China “comes a change in people’s outlook. There’s a new confidence, a sense of destiny, and such an incredible thirst for knowledge.”

Peter Hessler wrote in National Geographic, “Few Chinese spend much time thinking about the future. Decades of political turmoil taught citizens that nothing lasts forever, which inspires the fearlessness of the entrepreneurs but also makes them shortsighted.”

Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker, “The place changes too fast; nobody in China has the luxury of being confident in his knowledge. Who shows a peasant how to find a factory job? How does a former Maoist learn to start a business?...Everything is figured out n the fly; the people are masters of improvisation.”

Many people feel the Chinese have lost their moral compass and have become too consumed with money and materialism (See Money, Business Customs). Some see the rebirth of Confucianism and a look to Confucianism to answer questions about the meaning of life as a response to this.

The younger generation has less reverence towards traditional Chinese values than the older generation and the behavior and values of many young Chinese isn't all that different from young Westerners.

Some have argued that traditional Confucian values, which prized things like harmony, humility, honor, maintaining face, and respect for older people, are quickly being replaced by Western values which emphasize things like individualism, youth and success. Young Chinese, who were once polite and respectful to their elders, now criticize them and accuse them of being rigid and addicted to boring Beijing opera. Older people accuse young Chinese of being materialistic and undisciplined and too interested in motorcycles and casual sex.

Many Chinese crave anything new. They are fond of gadgets are very much engaged in the world of cell phones, text messaging, gaming and the Internet. The only things that limits them is money.

China's growing economy over the past few decades has led to a high degree of mobility among cities and regions, creating what the Beijing-based lawyer Chen Wei described to China Daily as a "strangers' society".

Asking Personal Questions

Peter Krasnopolsky wrote in the Global Times, “Living in Beijing I have managed to develop a relatively high level of tolerance to inquiries which many Westerners perceive as personal. I am now fine with strangers asking me about my salary, my age, my weight, my medical history, my girlfriend's age, when I plan to get married and a number of other nonsense questions, answers for which are usually reserved for the closest friends back home. Yet, the tactlessness of strangers gets to me the most when I am in the company of my Chinese girlfriend's 4-year old daughter from her first marriage. The curiosity must be driving these strangers mad, so that they go through extra effort to approach the four-year-old in a supermarket, a restaurant, or a park and ask her "Why don't you look like your Daddy?" Curiosity killed the cat. That's how I feel towards these curious characters.” [Source: Peter Krasnopolsky, Global Times, April 12, 2011]

“I shouldn't really blame Beijingers for their inquisitiveness. They don't live in a multi-ethnic society, such as the one many of us Westerners come from. Mixed couples are not a rule in New Jersey either, but we don't usually stare at them. Moreover, never would we question anybody in a family in which the kid looks explicitly different than one or both of the parents. In the West, we are quite familiar with concepts like divorce, second marriage, adoption and civil marriage. Never would we dare to ask a complete stranger, and especially his child, why one doesn't look like the other. After the first time I dropped 4-year-old Fenfen off at the kindergarten bus, the teacher asked her "Is that foreigner your father?" Not wanting to be bothered and probably still confused about the whole "father" concept, she just replied "yes." Similarly, whenever I am asked "Is that your daughter?" by my nosy neighbors, I reply affirmatively (while being equally confused about the whole notion of "fatherhood").” [Ibid]

“I wish this interest in my family stopped there, but it doesn't. Fortunately, some strangers are more tactful than others and would say, "She probably looks more like her mom, doesn't she?" - to which I just nod. Some ask me whether she understands Chinese; to them I suggest they should ask her. Then there are the naive ones, who would whisper to each other: "See, I told you mixed babies are beautiful!" To these I proudly smile in response, actually believing for a moment in my non-existent achievement. Still, the polite and cautious strangers are less frequent than the annoying and intrusive truth seekers.” [Ibid]

“The other day me and Fenfen were taking a walk when some auntie ran ahead of us, stared profusely into the kid's face and loudly announced for the whole street to hear: "This is a Chinese girl!" Not wanting to disappoint her, I said: "You are very clever." Unfortunately, she took it as an invitation for a conversation and immediately asked the little girl: "Why don't you look like your father?" I was seeing red, but instead I took a deep breath and in my broken Chinese responded: "You look like a clever person, but in fact you are not." By the expression on her face I could see she understood what I meant.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: 1) Citizens poster images, University of Washington; 2) Confucius images, Brooklyn Collage; 3) Village, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 4) Sleeping guy Beifan http://www.beifan.com/ ; Asia Obscura http://asiaobscura.com/

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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